The urban jungle: A wildlife spotter's guide

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A A A

Dolphins in London, falcons in Cardiff – it's amazing what you can find in the city

Water voles

The inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows – not to mention Britain's largest vole and fastest-declining mammal – is the water vole. Its numbers have declined by 90 per cent in the past few decades, in part because of mink, an introduced species. These have escaped from mink fur farms or been deliberately let out by animal-rights activists.

Water voles are brown and much smaller than otters. Look out for them around dykes, waterways, and river banks. They are shy and can generally be seen plopping into the water along a canal or stream; holes in the banks are also a useful indicator. They are diurnal and seen mainly in day time. Visit Rainham Marshes in east London or the Wetland Centre in Barnes for particularly healthy populations. You can equally go to Wildlife Trust sites (www.wildlifetrusts.org).

Peregrine falcons

With spring breeding season flapping towards us there are plenty of opportunities to spot a bird or two. If you're lucky, this might be a majestic peregrine falcon. The beautiful bird of prey can be identified by its grey upper plumage and swift velocity; they are the fastest animals on Earth, with diving speeds of up to 200mph.

While these animals were once threatened by pesticides and persecution from landowners, their national population has risen from 350 in the 1950s to 1,500 now. "Whereas previously they were targeted by misinformed landowners who believed they were targeting their animals, now attitudes have changed," says Emily Brennan, director of biodiversity conservation at the London Wildlife Trust.

Want to spot one? At any time of day, go to landmarks such as London's Tate Modern (where a breeding pair can often be seen at the top of the tower), Cardiff City Hall or Birmingham's Fort Dunlop factory.

Otters

Are you an otter spotter? The rewards are well worth the wait. These beautiful animals live largely on fish, and while they can survive for up to four years, are rare, secretive and therefore difficult to see. They will eat invertebrates, but a large part of their diet is piscine.

Otters' numbers have declined because of pesticide use. While they used to be found in many cities, a decline in their habitats has also driven them away.

Recent sightings of their prints (yes, they are that sparse) include around London's Heathrow and on the banks of the river Colne (in Hertfordshire), a tributary of the Thames. The best thing to do is walk along a river and search for paw-marks (although don't confuse these with those left by dogs).

Stag beetles

Large and menacing-looking yet paradoxically threatened themselves, male stag beetles are obvious from their huge pincers. They are two inches long and can be seen in gardens all over the country (although the capital is a national stronghold), and you have a great chance of spotting one. Their larvae live in dead wood, so if you want to encourage them, leave this around. In summer you can see them flying in your garden and other grassy habitats, where they are noticeable particularly at dusk and late afternoon. Watch out: cats might kill them, and clearing up deadwood is an issue, too.

Hedgehogs

Hedgehog numbers are falling but, surprisingly, they are doing slightly better in urban than in rural areas. "Hogs eat slugs and snails so are good for people's gardens, but the favour has not been returned: at the end of last year, they were listed as a National Priority Species, meaning that they are declining so fast they may become extinct if we don't take action," says Brennan. Hedgehogs need a large range to find females and food; crossing concrete and roads can be a problem. And decking and patios in gardens removes hedgehog-foraging areas.

Seen one recently? There is currently a national hedgehog population survey taking place at www.hogwatch.org.uk.

Seals

Feast your eyes on common and grey seals on city rivers. These aquatic, gregarious mammals are large, grey-to-brownish-grey fish-eaters, and can be told apart from each other by the common seal's rounded head. Show no trepidation towards your new bewhiskered chums. "They are usually fairly timid animals," continues Brennan. "If someone got too close they would just swim off."

Most of these slippery water-dwellers are based around the Norfolk and Essex coast, so the ones seen venturing up city rivers are the inquisitive ones, according to the Zoological Society of London. These are generally young males.

On the Thames, they have been spied as far up as Richmond; they are often seen lolling about Westminster and Waterloo Bridges. Pay especial heed to sandbanks and rocks, where they might occasionally rest their flippers.

Red kites

Keep your eyes peeled for a strongly forked tail and reddish-brown plumage if you want to pick out a red kite. These large-ish birds do predate other animals but are mainly scavengers, picking through roadkill and rubbish bins (so fear not for your cat's safety).

In the 1880s, they were persecuted almost to extinction, but nowadays can be seen progressively moving into the edges of London from the West after some successful repopulation along the M4. "When a pair raise their young, the young leave and look for new nesting territories, generally where there is lots of food available," explains Brennan. "And this seems to be happening toward some urban areas."

For a feathery eyeful of kite, go to rubbish dumps and gardens; they have also been sighted in Hackney, east London. "It's common to see up to 50 in the sky in places. They are not shy and will come down and take food metres away from people," concludes Brennan.

Dolphins and porpoises

Dolphins are threatened in the UK and there has been a decline in their numbers since the 1940s. Nevertheless, they can often be seen around the times of changing tides on the Thames, especially in April and May, even in very urban areas such as the Isle of Dogs in London.

Harbour porpoises are the most widely seen porpoises in Britain. The Zoological Society of London reports sightings in Gravesend and even Greenwich. They grow up to 1.8 metres long, around the size of a seal.

Pipistrelle bats

At dusk, small pipistrelle bats are often mistaken for birds. Look again – these mammals have more erratic flight patterns than your average tweeter.

These night-lovers are now under threat in Britain due to the destruction of their natural habitat – hedgerows and woodland – though many have adapted by relying on buildings as roosting sites. They will squeeze under roof tiles, sheds and garages to make a home. It is legal requirement that should you uncover a bat roost in your home, you must inform your local authority; consider them if you are planning any renovations.

Look out for the critters at dusk or dawn scouting for insects around urban hedgerows or rivers.

Spotters' tips

* Local urban parks are a good bet; for bats, visit at dusk in the warmer months, or attend an organised bat walk. For any twitcher, a pair of binoculars are a must, and bat detectors – which pick up on ultrasonic cries – can be purchased over the internet. Contact the Bat Conservation Trust for more details ( www.bats.org.uk).

* Know your paw-prints? If not, books exist to smooth the identification process. The Field Studies Guide series are cheap, cheerful (and conveniently laminated) aides to topics such as mammal paw-prints, or butterfly patterns.

* Estuaries and urban rivers are increasingly showing evidence of life: keep your eyes open, especially when the tide is low. Again, take a pair of bins and don't write anything off. According to the Zoological Society of London, porpoises have been seen in Gravesend and Greenwich; and dolphins all around the Isle of Dogs.

* For a comprehensive guide to any of the animals you are likely to see in London and beyond, as well as further information on those threatened, see www.wildlondon.org.uk.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn